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How $10 of Supplies Saved My Life during the War: A Survivor’s Story

Today I sat down with my friend Amila to talk about her story growing up during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia.  Amila and her family of 3 lived in Sarajevo for the entire siege. She was 13 when the war broke out. I’ll ask her to share her experience and insights to help others who might find themselves in a similar situation.

Jacob: Amila, can you tell us what it was like leading up to the war?

Amila: Well, I was just a teenager at the time.  I didn’t really pay attention to what was going on in politics.   I don’t think the adults realized what was going on either until it was too late.  In Bosnia, everyone reads at least 2 or 3 newspapers every day and talk about politics over coffee with their neighbors at the local kafana.

I know we should have seen it coming.  Even as a teenager I could feel the tension and people were worried, but no one wants to believe something like… No one wants to believe that neighbors are going to turn against them.

J: Why didn’t your family leave?

A: I get asked that question all the time. It wasn’t that simple.  Where would we go? You also have to realize that during the entire start of the conflict there was always some talk of a meeting between the ruling parties, votes, and so many referendums.  We all kept thinking that, good, soon they will make a deal and this will be over.

When things got bad and you could still get out of Sarajevo, a lot of people went to Germany and Switzerland.  My friends who grew up there had awful times.  Kids made fun of them for being Bosnian.  Of course it was still better to be there than stuck in Bosnia, but it wasn’t good times for anyone.

Sarajevo streets during the siege
Sarajevo streets during the siege

J: What do you think helped you and your family make it through the siege?

A: We were really lucky because of where our home was located.  Later I learned that my father almost bought an apartment right in the city center.  I know exactly the building.  It is on the main road and has gorgeous large windows facing outwards.  If he’d bought that apartment, we would have most certainly been dead.   Snipers could have easily shot right into our windows.

Instead my father chose a house a bit out of the city center because it was larger.  The house was still close to the city center, something that helped because all the aid coming in went there.  The river was also close by for getting water once all the utilities went off.  Having a house also meant we could grow some food in our yard, though several times people climbed over the wall and stole our food.  It wasn’t even ripe yet… I remember my mother crying about that.  She wanted onions for soup so bad.

Images showing Sarajevo during the war
Images showing Sarajevo during the war

J: How did you get water?

A: Here is what really saved us at the start.  My father liked to go fishing and hunting with his friends.  He had a whole bunch of water treatment tablets.  Those water treatment tablets probably cost the US equivalent of $10, but literally saved our lives during the start of the siege.

Everyone else had to run outside to gather sticks and trash to burn so they could boil water they’d gathered from the river.  With so many people outside, it was easy pickings for the snipers.

“Those water treatment tablets probably cost the US equivalent of $10, but literally saved our lives during the start of the siege.”

The first months were the worst for deaths.  We were able to spend most of it inside our home because we didn’t have to gather fuel wood.  It rains a lot in springtime in Sarajevo too.  My family collected water from our gutters so we didn’t have to go to the river.  The snipers were always waiting on the path to the river.

Of course, the water treatment tablets eventually ran out and we have to go outside.

J: What did you do then?

A: We stayed inside as much as possible.  Oh that was terrible. The other thing that people don’t understand about war is that it is incredibly boring.  I was a teenager at the time and still wanted to see my friends.  Of course I wasn’t allowed to go anywhere.  I did have one friend who lived on the next street and we’d hang out at one of our houses.

Our small street wasn’t a target for snipers.  They liked the really tall buildings that overlooked the main street.  It was called “Sniper Alley.”  I don’t know who came up with that name but it stuck.

If you needed to cross Sniper Alley, you’d either have to run really, really fast.  I mean, run like you’ve never run before.  I’d wear my hair in a hat and tie my coat around my tightly to make myself as small as possible.  You could also wait for the UN trucks to be there and cross the street behind them.  Of course, the UN trucks weren’t always there.  I hated it when my father or mother had to leave to go somewhere.  The rest of us would just be sitting there waiting in complete silence until they came back.

A sign in Sarajevo warning people of a sniper nearby
A sign in Sarajevo warning people of a sniper nearby

J: How did you stay warm in the winter?

A: (Laughing) We Bosnians are pretty clever people! We figured out all sorts of ways to make stoves.  You could take these big metal jugs for oil, cut a hole in them, and turn it into a wood stove.  Of course the problem was that you needed wood for the stove.  There used to be all sorts of parks in Sarajevo with beautiful big trees.  After the war the parks were all empty because people had cut down the trees.  They got turned into graveyards.

J: What advice would you give to people today?

A: Water!  People in my prepping group are always talking about solar power and generators.  These are nice, but you can live without electricity.  You can’t live without water. I have three months of water stored in a barrel.  In case I must flee, I also have lots of water purification tablets and a mini stove with fuel so I can boil water in case I need to.

Also, I think it is important to live your life and don’t be afraid, but also don’t be stupid.  My father is still angry that he didn’t leave Bosnia when things were looking bad.  There is nothing that we can do differently now but I’m not going to let my family go through the same ordeal I did if I can avoid it.

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